We Grew Up With the Ocean. Now We Are Protecting it for Future Generations.

In this post, two youth from island communities, Alvania Lawen and JinNam Hopotoa, share their perspectives on ocean conservation. Both live in locations with marine protected areas that National Geographic’s Pristine Seas helped to establish.

Alvania Lawen, Seychelles

Life in Seychelles is deeply integrated with the ocean. Sitting at home right now I can hear the waves coming ashore outside. Most schools here are also near the beach, meaning field trips to the ocean can be as simple as crossing the road.

Protecting the ocean feels normal to me, like I’m meant to do it. I got my start in marine conservation at age 11 when I began snorkeling and experienced firsthand our diverse underwater life. From there I joined a successful campaign to ban certain single-use plastics led by the nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) Sustainability for Seychelles and SYAH-Seychelles. The campaign began in 2015. I participated in television spots about plastic alternatives and carried a reusable jute bag with me wherever I went. Our combined efforts led to bans on the importation and distribution of items such as plastic bags and cups in 2017.

My volunteer work, spread across a variety of NGOs and projects, resulted in me receiving a national award for environmental advocacy. The prize? A trip to Aldabra Atoll, in Seychelles’ Outer Islands.

My trip came shortly after Pristine Seas’ expedition to the Outer Islands. At Aldabra, the Pristine Seas team encountered sharks, massive schools of parrotfish, and a wealth of other marine life. They documented the experience in photos and video, allowing Seychellois who had never visited the Outer Islands to see how truly special they are. 

When I had the privilege to visit Aldabra myself, I was moved by its pristine beauty. Seeing such an amazing marine environment firsthand strengthened my love for the ocean and led to another trip, this time to represent Seychelles at the UN’s first Ocean Conference.

In New York, I was excited to meet other young people who shared my love for the ocean. Some of them came from landlocked countries or states, but they nonetheless understood the importance of a clean, sustainably managed ocean.

In Seychelles our economy depends on tourism, and the tourism sector depends largely on the marine environment. The term “blue economy” refers to this sustainable economic use of the ocean. NGOs play a big role in environmental protection here, and I am part of several women- and youth-led NGOs with an environmental focus.

As a local representative of Parley for the Oceans, I lead intercepts, or beach cleanups, often with school groups. These activities help youth feel part of the solution to plastic pollution rather than solely part of the problem. To reduce the demand for virgin plastic, Parley helps companies redesign marine plastic into useful products like sneakers. The initiative also aims to develop new materials to reduce reliance on plastic.

Young people can also use social media as a tool to protect the ocean. You don’t need to be Instagram-famous or have a ton of followers, as long as you stay focused on your goals and make connections with like-minded people and organizations. Try to treat any negative news, such as an alarming report about climate change, as a reason to persist in your work.

Before learning to snorkel, I didn’t even know how to swim. I took a leap of faith and found my calling. Young people need a little bit of courage and a lot of passion to effect positive change. Following my passion helped me make friends who share my mindset, and collectively we have made great strides in protecting the environment. People know me as the person who banned plastics, but truthfully it wasn’t me. It was a group of us working together.

JinNam Hopotoa, Niue

For youth to be involved in protecting the ocean is a no-brainer. I believe it’s our responsibility to look after what God and our ancestors have given us and conserve it for future generations.

We’re doing this in Niue, a self-governing territory of New Zealand, by designating 40 percent of our waters as a marine protected area (MPA), restoring coral reefs, and fishing responsibly.

Recent cyclones have damaged Niue’s coral reefs. So have coral-eating Drupella snails and crown-of-thorns starfish. In response, Magical Niue, a scuba diving center where I work as a skipper, has been planting coral fragments and trying to populate more super corals.

Drupella snails hang underneath the reef and suck out the coral polyps, leaving the reef bleached. Then fungi and algae move in and turn the reef completely black. Removing these snails can therefore help preserve the coral. When tourists come to dive, we ask if they’d be willing to help remove snails from the reef, and often they are. They’ve removed thousands so far.

Maintaining our fish stocks is another key goal for us. I’ve heard stories of great fish catches over the years. People would spend a few hours on the water and return with a boatful of fish. That doesn’t happen anymore. I’m hopeful that Niue’s new MPA, established with the support of National Geographic’s Pristine Seas initiative, will help secure our fish stocks.

Years from now, I want our youth to be able to enjoy an abundance of real fish instead of only plastic fish, pictures of fish, or canned fish. To achieve this reality for our own kids, we need to look out for the tuna’s kids and start acting now.

That’s why, when I fish, I release any undersized catches. It’s why we protect the coral reefs that provide habitat for the fish. It’s also why the MPA designation is a great development, because it may be able to reduce overfishing of migratory species like wahoo and tuna by large vessels.

To other youth who want to make a positive difference in their communities, I would say: It all starts with you. At the family level, you can start practicing the actions of care, respect, and love. From the small scale you can amplify your actions to the level of society. Imagine the world you want to leave your kids, then work to build it. Let your heart guide you.

My entry into the sustainability and conservation fields happened about two years ago, when I did design work for Niue Ocean Wide, a project aimed at sustainably managing our natural resources. I came to appreciate the importance not only of managing our marine fish stock but also of the actions we take on land, because the two work hand in hand. I am privileged to be designing a new sign for a marine learning center in one of Niue’s villages, using my design skills to advance conservation education. Everybody has some skill to offer others.

Going forward, I’d like to inspire younger Niueans to take pride in our environment and channel their pride into action. I want to show how exciting it can be to care for our island, because if you care about something, you’ll do your best to look after it and make it last.

In celebration of Earth Day, National Geographic has created a suite of free resources that will take young people on a deep dive into Earth’s ocean. Share this Earth Day Guide with educators and families in your community.

We hope you’ll join us to hear from National Geographic Young Explorer and eco-journalist Sruthi Gurudev, marine ecologist Salome Buglass, and award-winning ocean photojournalist Brian Skerry in the April 21 National Geographic Virtual Field Trip focused on the ocean.

You can also join other young leaders in protecting the ocean by following the growing #GenGeo community.

Banner photo of Niue courtesy of Manu San Félix

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